SKOWHEGAN — What first looked like a clash of old-school police work and modern forensics in the 1980 murder of Rita St. Peter merged Friday into compelling evidence in the trial of the man accused of killing her.

Alicia Wilcox, a former technician at the State Police Crime Lab, testified Friday that tire marks seen in photographs taken in Anson where the 20-year-old’s body was found were similar to tire marks taken from a truck owned by Jay Mercier, of Industry.

“They had the same tread design on the front tires as those that were mounted on the GMC vehicle in 1980,” Wilcox told a jury Friday, the second day of testimony in the trial in Somerset County Superior Court.

Mercier, 57, is accused of sexually assaulting St. Peter, beating her to death with something similar to a tire iron and then driving over her body with his pickup truck. He has pleaded not guilty.

Under direct examination from Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson, who is prosecuting the case, Wilcox also testified that photographs of partial tire impressions taken at the scene and photographs of tire marks on paper towels at the murder scene also were similar to the treads of the rear tires on Mercier’s truck.

The ink prints were made by hand on poster-sized paper by a detective in 1980, which is not the way investigative work is done these days, Wilcox said. The prints, however, were suitable for comparison to the photographs taken from mud and dirt near the spot where St. Peter’s body was found off Campground Road in Anson.

“They show a clear pattern,” she said.

The photographs also were not taken the way investigators would do it today, with a tripod and proper lighting, but they, too, were suitable for comparison to the ink prints.

In the courtroom on Thursday, defense attorneys said the officer who took the ink prints did not write down the tire and rim size, so there is no evidence of exactly what tires Mercier had on his truck.

Some of the best tire prints at the scene had been destroyed by a police vehicle driving over them, but what remained was enough to go on, Benson said Thursday.

In a digital slide show Friday, Wilcox, now an assistant professor of legal services at Husson University, showed comparisons of the tire markings. She used a digital photo technique to highlight areas with color and to flip the black and white images of the ink prints to make viewing easier on the eyes, she said.

Wilcox made it clear to the jury that her findings do not conclude that the tire marks are from the same truck. She said Mercier’s truck could not be ruled out, though, and could have made both sets of tracks.

“We’re never asked to match; we’re asked to compare,” she said.

Defense attorney John Alsop attempted to cast doubt into Wilcox’ testimony, using the 1980 Tread Design Guide magazine to show that many different companies made tires with similar characteristics and markings. He cited motor vehicle measurements to show the tires could have been mounted on any number of other model pickup trucks.

Questioning the weight of Wilcox’ findings, Alsop said there could have been 10 — or 10,000 — similar sets of tires on the road in 1980.

Also Friday, two former area residents testified that they saw St. Peter and Mercier in separate locations in downtown Madison the night of the murder, but they also saw Mercier drive in the same direction St. Peter was walking.

Daniel Moody, now living in Montana, and Katherine Chagnon, now of Maryland, said they saw St. Peter leave a downtown bar around midnight July 4 and walk toward the bridge over the Kennebec River to Anson.

The two said they saw Mercier drive in the same direction at the same time in his distinctive red GMC pickup truck.

St. Peter’s body was found the next morning off Campground Road in Anson.

Chagnon said Mercier had tried to talk to her as she sat in her car waiting for friends that evening, but left.

She said St. Peter appeared drunk as she left downtown, and she last saw her by the textile mill next to the river.

“She was walking,” Chagnon said. “She was alone. Jay Mercier came out of (the bar) and headed toward town; did a U-turn and headed toward the bridge.”

The trial continues Monday.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

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